Thursday, 12 May 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh – Priority Questions
59. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the steps that she will take to reduce back-to-school costs for parents including the cost of schoolbooks, uniforms and voluntary contributions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23688/22]
Parents will be very much starting to worry about how they will pay for the next school year. It is always an enormous expense of several hundred euro and often more than €1,000 for families that have multiple children in school, for books, uniforms and voluntary contributions. We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis that families are grappling with, so what will the Minister do to make the return to school as affordable as possible for families?
A range of measures are in place to reduce back-to-school costs and also to help families with these costs. The Department published a circular in 2017 which sets out principles of cost-effective practice to be adopted by schools to reduce the cost of returning to school. Under these measures, schools are required to select school uniforms that are generic and can be purchased from an array of retailers and only iron-on or sew-on crests should be used. The circular also sets out that schools should consult with parents on their views and suggestions on cost-reduction initiatives for school uniforms.
The Department also supports schools to help reduce the cost of schoolbooks. Schools are expected to adopt a cost-conscious approach to the selection of books. Under the book-rental scheme, the Department provided funding of €17.2 million in 2021 to schools. Some 96% of primary schools and 69% of post-primary schools operate a book-rental scheme for parents. Additional funding of €1 million was provided under budget 2020 to provide free books in delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, primary schools on a pilot basis. Under Circular 46/2013, DEIS primary schools receive a book grant of €21 per pupil. This pilot provided an additional €64 per pupil to increase the overall book grant rate to €85 per pupil enrolled in the school. This is in line with the costings as set out in the 2019 Barnardos report on the real cost of school, which states that €85 is the average cost of schoolbooks at primary-school level. This funding was allocated to 102 DEIS primary schools for a new pilot programme for the 2020-21 school year. This funding has continued for the 2021-22 school year.
The aim of this pilot is to provide free schoolbooks for students in the schools involved and to support these schools in eliminating the cost of schoolbooks for parents. It will continue to run for the 2021-22 school year and its effectiveness and impact will be monitored and evaluated before any decision is made as regards its possible extension or continuation. It is my intention to complete this process as soon as possible.
I recently announced the expansion of the DEIS programme benefitting 347 schools. Some 310 schools will be included in DEIS for the first time and 37 existing DEIS primary schools are being reclassified and will be eligible for increased supports. Schools in the DEIS programme are provided with additional financial support by way of a DEIS grant and an enhanced schoolbook grant rate.
I also understand the need for improved capitation funding to schools for running costs and I am pleased that budgets 2020 and 2019 provided for increases in standard capitation funding for primary schools.
People across the State are doing all they can to keep up with sky-high bills and runaway price increases. The cost-of-living crisis is not new and it has been going on in education for some time. The idea that we have a free education system at primary- and post-primary levels is a myth. The Department of Education is one of the only Departments that has not put forward any serious proposals in recent months to tackle increasing costs within its portfolio.
I am not blown away by the Minister's answer. She instanced a five-year old circular, two pilot programmes and the expansion of DEIS, which is welcome but, ultimately, the vast bulk of families are not going to see any reduction in the multi-hundred euro bills and neither are they going to see any reduction in the bills of more than €1,000.
There is a programme for Government commitment to reducing the high cost of education and in particular to provide free schoolbooks. We are two years into the Government's term and, aside from the pilot programme the Minister referred to in a small number of schools, there is no progress towards free schoolbooks. Is this something the Government is going to deliver? How is it going to deliver it and when is it going to happen?
Deputy Ó Laoghaire needs to take a more holistic view of the various measures we have in schools. For example, as I already referenced, significant funding has gone into DEIS. We have more schools than ever in DEIS, following the single biggest increase in the DEIS profile for schools, costing to the tune of €18 million this year and increasing to €32 million in 2023.
In addition, specifically in terms of measures of late, in recognition of the pressure facing families, this year the Government reduced the cost of school transport, which will come on stream for this school year. The cap on school transport fees that currently stands at €220 for families at primary level and €650 for families at post-primary level will be reduced to €150 for a family at primary level and to €500 per family at post-primary level. Furthermore, in recognition of cost-of-living expenses, all examination fees have been voided this year, so there is no cost to families in that regard. That is in addition to the suite of measures that have been introduced by the Government across various sectors such as the fuel allowance and the electricity credit payment.
The Minister said I must take a more holistic view. I very much welcome the expansion in DEIS. While I would have appreciated more engagement at the time, I very much welcomed it. It is very beneficial, but it is focused on tackling disadvantage and ensuring that every student has the same opportunity to progress. It is not focused on reducing costs, which affect every family across the State. The costs are enormous. I want to come back to the point about schoolbooks. It must be the loneliest sentence in the entire programme for Government in that it is often talked about, but no action is taken on it. Not for the first time, the Minister has neglected to answer the question. Is that something she is going to do? When is she going to do it, and how is she going to do it? It has been done in many other jurisdictions. It is the case in the North and in many European jurisdictions. People who arrive here are often amazed that they have to fork out for the significant cost of books. Is the Minister going to do it? When is she going to do it, and how is she going to do it?
I reiterate that the book scheme was extended and the pilot programme has run for two years. We have given a commitment that we will review the programme and look at the potential going forward for it to be either continued or extended. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire is aware, that is a budget consideration. It is important that we allow the pilot to complete and for it to be fully reviewed. He would accept that is best practice in regard to any model.
Equally so, it is important to acknowledge that under the book-rental scheme, more than €17.2 million has been expended by the Department of Education to ensure that families have access to books. Some 96% of primary schools and 69% of post-primary schools are availing of the book-rental scheme. Notwithstanding that, in recognition of the opportunity to do something more with books, going forward, when the pilot scheme concludes it will be reviewed and appropriate action will be taken then.